Milano! That’s where we recently went, because it was… wait for it… Fashion week! Okay, so that’s not at all the reason we went. But although we were told that all through the year Milan is full of fashionable folk (I don’t doubt that – hey, it’s Italy!), we saw some pretty far out people. Actually, some of them might have been aliens. Am I still talking about fashion? So sorry! Let’s get down and dirty with Milan!
The historic city centre which is of interest for tourists and travellers can easily be explored by foot. If you want to cut corners or need to save time, there is an excellent transport system consisting of the subway, buses and trams in place.
It isn’t expensive, either, but make sure to do a tiny bit of research – it might still be very worth it to get a 24 hour pass or a Milano Card instead of splashing out on those single tickets!
A tram ride may actually be part of your itinerary because a few of the lines are still operating with the original street cars from the 1920s. And if you can’t make it to Milan, try San Francisco, where about ten of the Milan vintage trams were delivered to and are still going strong. That’s right, these wondrous trams like to travel!
So what else has Milan got in store for you? Let’s find out!
Things to do in Milan
This gothic cathedral is only the largest in Italy, my friends! You can go in, and it’s free, but there’s a dress code watch dog on the way, so make sure you look demure (and I mean demure – I had a skirt that was slightly above the knee and I did not get in that time). While the cathedral’s inside is stunning (and it has mummies), the bit that will really make your day and stay with you is a trip to the Duomo’s roof.
This is not free (12 Euros admission) but it a) has no dress code (yay!), and b): seriously, you’ll forget that and how much you paid once you’re up there. The Duomo took 600 years to built and that still does not seem like a lot of time when you look at the amount of incredible stuff that is up there! I mean, did people have nothing to do? I have an aversion to the term ‘mind-blowing’, but boy, my mind was blown!
In front of the Duomo is, rather unsurprisingly, the Piazza del Duomo; a vast square filled with tourists and pigeons. It’s a good place to take some shots of the cathedral, and also a good place to get scammed, so watch it. A fave is to hand you some bird seed and then make you pay for it.
That being said, I felt that Milan does not call for overzealous caution bordering paranoia. There were two spots with scam artists (the Duomo and the Sforzesco Castle), and even there I never felt particularly harassed. I’m sure you can get pick-pocketed in Milan, too (duh), so common sense applies, but it’s no Paris.
Museo del Novecento
This is an art gallery right next to the Duomo, covering Twentieth century art. Intriguing genius that I am, I lured Laurence in there by telling him that from this museum you get an excellent view of the Duomo. Which was no lie, except for the fact that some constructions were taking place, and so there was no view.
I had not known that and felt a bit bad, but it turned out that Laurence found a contemporary art exhibition and got stuck there. I kind of had to drag him out. Lo and behold!
So yes, this must be my favourite museum in Milan, of the ones I have visited. It features not only Italian artists (like for instance Amedeo Modigliani, Carlo Carrà, Umberto Boccioni), but also international ones (Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee…). There are many, many different little exhibitions, and the way they are set up, you are kind of sad when you’re through them all and realise it’s time to leave.
The admission fee is only 5 Euros, which is certainly brilliant value. Two hours before closing time and on Tuesdays from 2pm, admission is free of charge. Now there’s really no excuse left not to go!
San Bernardino alle Ossa
This church is just a 5-minute-walk away from the Duomo, and the reason that makes it worth visiting might also be the very reason why you might not want to visit it at all. You see, in this area there used to be a cemetery, which ran out of space. So the remains of the dead (the bones) were stored in a room specifically built for this purpose.
When I say ‘stored’, I should probably clarify that this refers to a very neat stacking of the bones and skulls, with some of them assembled in specific ways so they would serve as decoration. This was all done quite a while ago (we’re talking 12th and 13th century), but the room, which is called an ‘ossuary’, made it throughout the centuries and their challenges.
It is attached to the church of San Bernardino alle Ossa. If you visit, note that the church is closed between 12-1:30pm on weekdays (on week-ends it closes at 12:30pm).
Piazza dei Mercanti
This is the former medieval centre of Milan. It is much smaller than it used to be in the middle ages and it is admittedly not crazy spectacular, but it is right next to the Piazza del Duomo (albeit not obvious to stumble over) and it does have a certain enchanting atmosphere. Walk the few steps there and decide for yourself if all the travellers who never realised it was there missed out or not.
Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II
Guess what, we’re still at the Piazza del Duomo (I told you Milan could be easily explored by foot) and you were wondering the whole time what this unusual looking building with the glass roof left from the Duomo is. This, my friends, is one of the world’s oldest shopping malls. Nowadays it’s all about the Prada and the, er, other stuff a humble travel blogger can’t afford.
But don’t skip it, because it is after all one of Milan’s historic landmarks and definitely one of the more fascinating arcades you’ll ever walk through. There are also some renowned cafés here (like Biffi or Zucca’s Bar), which fall under the category of “You have not really been to Milan if you haven’t had a sandwich/ coffee/ pink smurf juice here”, so that’s something to consider.
And if this isn’t enough tradition for you just yet, fear not, because there’s more! On the floor of the arcades, you’ll find a mosaic of the coat of arms of Turin, which has a bull on it. Now if you take a closer look you’ll notice that this bull’s testicles are not quite what they used to be. In fact you can’t see them at all because there’s a hole.
This is because it is considered good luck to put your heel in that spot and spin around. There are many opinions about how it is done correctly (only the right heel is correct; spin three times around; spin one time around; and so on) and there’s even the rumour that –gasp- this is not something any Milanese would ever do; it’s just a tourist thing.
Whatever you do, stay a bit and watch people go for it – the grumpy dad, the excited child, the giggly teenager, the embarrassed boy-friend, the cool lady… it’s fun!
Teatro alla Scala
Do we have some serious opera fans in the house? Because they would know this one for sure: the Scala is the place where the best singers in the world perform. It is also know for its great ballet performances. To get to it, you just walk through the Galleria Emmanuele Vittorio II.
Now maybe it’s a good thing to point out to not expect too much – because I did, and I got to the Piazza Scala and I could for the love of god not find the opera which I imagined to be this really fantastic imposing building. Then I realised it was just there, only it didn’t look like much.
If you’d like to see an actual opera at La Scala while you are in Milan, you are on your own because I have no idea how it all works (but the Internet should help you). All I will do is point out that there is also a museum which you can visit, the highlight being that you get to see the inside of the actual theatre.
A great alternative to the Scala experience is the opera in the town of Cremona, an approximate 2 hour train ride away.
Santa Maria delle Grazie and Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”
Speaking of places I didn’t really go to, this church is one of them. ‘Great’, you think, ‘that’s quite useful – NOT!’. True, true, sorry for that, but I can tell you why: Santa Maria delle Grazie hosts Leonardo Da Vinci’s world- famous fresco “The Last Supper” from the 15th century. It’s something you really want to see if you get the chance.
However, if you are like me and you do your research shortly before the trip, you won’t be able to see it, because you might need to reserve your tickets weeks and sometimes months in advance. You might be able to cheat a little by booking a tour which has the visit included, but don’t count on it.
It’s a very structured visit, too: you’ll need to be there 30 minutes in advance, or your ticket will be sold, and then you’ll only get 15-20 minutes in front of the actual painting.
So maybe now that you have read this, it’ll pop back in your mind when you plan a trip to Milan, and you remember to book a ticket in advance. Or you remember that you can’t be bothered. One of these.
Back to the less complicated stuff. Which also has some Leonardo da Vinci, as well Michelangelo in it. I’m talking about the Castello Sforzesco. This castle was built in the 15th century on the remains of a fortification from the 14th century. It used to be one of the biggest fortresses in Europe, and nowadays holds around 8 museums without breaking a sweat. Not to mention all the archives and libraries and collections on top of that. So, quite big still.
Now you could wander around the castle grounds, which is free, but you could also visit the museums. As I understood it, the admission (5 Euros) gives you access to a number of museums already (but I don’t think to all of them). We walked the castle and saw everything from art throughout the centuries (paintings, sculptures, frescos…) to weapons and knight’s armors to furniture to musical instruments to household items… seriously, we saw everything.
Suffice to say, this is not something to do in a couple of hours. It is very impressive, but it is also quite a lot to take in. I could imagine that is a reason why they offer a 3 day pass for 12 Euros. If you don’t want to ‘overdose’, you might want to take advantage of the option to spread your visit over those three days.
This public park is right next to the Sforza castle and when it was built around 1888, the intention was for it to present the idle wanderer with some panoramic views of both the castle and also the Arch of Peace opposite it.
It is a very nice park, with sculptures and ponds with ducks (and also turtles), plenty of lawn to collapse onto, plenty of big old trees… And while down time in a park is always welcome, try to visit also on a week-end when the park seems to turn into one big, relaxed garden party. Vendors with ice-cream carts, drumming circles, hopeful musicians, kids playing, people performing…
Inside the park, but accessible from the outside, is the 108m high Branca tower, named after the liquor company, which you can go up for 5 Euros. An elevator will take you to the top, and you won’t be out in the open, but you’ll get an all around view of the city.
Also in the park (with the entry outside the park) is the Triennale museum for design and architecture, which we didn’t make it to, but which is said to be very good.
When you’re at the Parco Sempione, you could keep on walking and head to the Cimitero Monumentale, which is a cemetery, but also home to a large amount of incredible statues and other monuments. It’s the resting ground of the Milanese elite, and they occasionally seem to have had rather dashing ideas. I mean, there’s a pyramid on this cemetery! Actually, there’s more than one, I think…
This is another one of my favourite sights. When you go in, there is an unobtrusive tourist office on the left. Yes, admission is free, but do go in, because you’ll get a little map which has all the information on it, plus I had a very nice lady who pointed interesting bits out to me.
Next you’ll make your way into the Famedio, which is the Temple of Fame (and not a church, like I thought at first), which is also worth exploring, and then you can visit the actual cemetery. There is the main part, but there are also sections for Non-Catholics and for Jewish people.
The cemetery is open daily from 8am to 6pm, except for Mondays, when it’s closed.
Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio
This is the last church, I promise! It’s not like Milan doesn’t have plenty more, but this one you may not want to skip. The Duomo might be Milan’s showpiece (without meaning to be disrespectful), but the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio is the church close to the hearts of the people of Milan.
Not only is Saint Ambrose the patron saint of the city, but he also founded this basilica in the 4th century (originally Basilica Martyrum), making it one of the oldest in Milan. It still contains his remains along with those of two other saints, and multiple other treasures. Historically this basilica is of greater relevance than the Duomo, and its architecture is considered to be one of the most important examples of Lombard Romanesque architecture.
It is certainly different from other churches I’ve seen; with its two bell towers and the atmospheric atrium. There are lots of little details to discover and facts to read about (the atrium hosts some sort of small exhibition made up of information panels). Plus, real saints! How often do you get close up and personal with those?!
Indeed, not too long ago this area would have been nothing to write home about, but it is now one of the hippest and best places to while away your evenings and nights. ‘Naviglio’ is Italian for canal, and yes, landlocked Milan had five of them, which were put to good use back in the days. These days go as far back as the 12th century, if you were wondering, when the canals were built as a connection to the lakes.
It is said that Leonardo DaVinci was involved in designing a system of sluices for the canals in the 15th century. And the marble for the construction of the Duomo? Was delivered via the canals as well. They used to be the main means of transportation, but this changed over time, and eventually all but three canals were filled in.
Two of those remaining, the Naviglio Grande and the Naviglio Parvese, form a triangle that is today known as the Navigli district. A lot of work has been put into reviving the charm of the area, which now boasts cafés, bars, restaurants, art galleries, design stores, book shops. It’s a long-term project for sure, and a lot of corners still look rough, but also… promising.
Even if the nightlife is not for you, come to the canals for the sunset and wander around a bit. Who knows what’s gonna happen – maybe you’ll have one of your nicest evenings in Milan!
“Mediolanum” was the name Milan went by during Roman times, and it used to be one of the biggest and most important cities in the Roman Empire in Italy. Did you know it was here where it was agreed upon to end the persecution of Christians? But before you get all excited: yes, there are remains of the Roman Empire, however, it will take you a bit of imagination to recreate their former glory.
Quite impressive are the Roman columns in front of the Basilica di San Lorenzo, which we visited, but there are definitely more things to see. Check out this Wikipedia entry for background information and this pedestrian route through Roman Milan!
Is that it for things to do in Milan?
Nope, there’s more. Oh, there’s much more. There are many more churches, there are many more museums, there are countless palazzos. There is the picturesque Brera district, there is the posh Quadrilatero d’Oro where one finds all the haute couture stores… The sheer amount of potential sights is unbelievable. Even WikiTravel Milan seems to eventually helplessly drown in all the stuff there is to see and do.
This blog post should have you covered for the most popular bits, though. If you have something to add or a question, happily leave a comment. If you have made it this far – it was quite a long post, wasn’t it? Thanks for tagging along, guys!
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